The Executive at Late Midlife

by Steven D. Axelrod, Ph.D.

Executive coaching assignments in the C-suite involve a distinct set of developmental challenges. In my experience, coaching at this level often means addressing issues of personal integrity and continuing commitment to work and organizational life. These executives must draw on their technical competence and history of managerial effectiveness in order to be successful. However, they must also leverage a sense of self as it has developed over time in the organizational context. Flaws or derailments in this core sense of self have profoundly adverse consequences for the executive’s all-important stewardship and modeling functions for the organization.

To be effective with executives at this level the coach must work at a deep level of “self in the world,” as the executive confronts dilemmas of growth vs. stagnation of the self. This executive is typically concerned with meaningfulness – not only of his own career but of the enterprise’s overall mission. He commonly wrestles with whether he can continue to passionately commit himself to work in the organization or whether he should leave the organization altogether to pursue more personally meaningful activities. The executive is typically thinking about his legacy as well as opportunities not taken, both personal and professional. In remedial cases, the coach is confronted with alcoholism, marital dissolution, and workplace relationships poisoned by narcissism.

These coaching assignments may be given special urgency by issues of succession and retirement that are on the horizon. The executive is of great value to the organization, but only if he is committed to his role and its core competencies. He needs to work out a constructive relationship with the leadership of the organization and to identify himself with the organization’s future and the development of its people.

Erikson (1950, 1958, 1968) and Gould (1972) have emphasized the centrality of a sense of authenticity and integrity in late middle age. The growth of the personality in the late-forties and fifties is built on resilience in the face of setbacks, increased concern with the meaning of life and the process of taking stock, and greater self-acceptance. There is a deepened sense of the core self, with fewer illusions and a beginning appraisal of the career legacy. More clearly than ever before the individual in late middle age grasps the flow of generations and feels a sense of responsibility for the generations to come. Optimally, he is both more separate and centered in the world and more deeply attached to others.

The attainment of authenticity carries with it an increased sense of what is truly important, a capacity to assess and accept what is real in both the external and internal worlds regardless of the consequences. Authenticity in late middle age entails a more penetrating sense of what is intrinsically important over time in relationships, work, and the life of an organization. Healthy development at this stage carries with it a strong sense of life as a journey and adventure, complete with joy, grief, success, setbacks, love, and death.

Healthy development in late midlife strongly defines the core competencies of this senior role. Authenticity is evident in the following key elements of role functioning:

  • Ambition for the organization and its mission rather than for the self
  • Communicate an understanding of the intrinsic rewards of work, especially the work that defines the particular organization
  • Ability to take positions and chart a course of action based on integrity and a long-term perspective
  • Ability to see what is most important in the life of the organization without illusion, cynicism, or despair
  • Development of managerial and leadership talent

Just as he helps the younger executive “catch the wave” of midlife development, the coach helps the top executive leverage the strengths and opportunities of late middle age. Healthy, effective organizations are critically dependent on the vital functioning of these leader-managers, on their capacity to serve as stewards of the organization and models of personal and career development. The ability to foster meaningful development of managerial talent based on insight into the dynamics of their own development and that of people more generally is one of the most important functions they can provide.

In my experience coaching these executives I have often had to help them grapple with whether they want to continue working and how they can best contribute to the organization. This has meant helping them find a balance between building on previous strengths and successes and trying new things. In the course of coaching, stagnation, inauthenticity, and an unwillingness to loosen control are some of our most potent adversaries. Measured against the criterion of what an organization needs from an executive at this level, the coach may be most helpful in supporting the executive’s decision to resign the role and pursue more fulfilling activities.

Case Example: Jack, Chief Operating Officer

As the COO of a financial services firm, Jack was very supportive of a coaching initiative that was being implemented for a group of junior executives. Wanting to lead by example and needing a forum to discuss some of his concerns about his career, Jack requested a coach for himself.

After decades rising through the ranks to become a practice leader in a large organization, Jack had left to join this relatively small, dynamic firm. He had wanted to take a more active hand in deal-making, but agreed first to lead the effort to improve the organization’s infrastructure. After limited success in that role, Jack was ready to step down as COO and devote himself to broader strategic management and deal-making. However, he was getting mixed signals from Bill, the young CEO of the firm, about how to define his new role. Jack was frustrated with Bill, whom he felt constantly changed direction and undermined others’ autonomy.

Colleagues at all levels viewed Jack as a man of substance, honesty, and integrity. He was considered an independent thinker and a caring person behind his gruff exterior. Highly valued for his decades of industry experience and breadth of contacts, he was seen as just what the organization needed. But people seemed to want more of Jack and more from him, and there was an undertone of frustration and disappointment in the 360 interviews. If only he would decide what role he wanted to play and commit to it!

Jack did indeed seem weary and listless. He was particularly frustrated with Bill, and vented his frustration by reminding people that he didn’t need the money and could retire at any time. While he had taken an interest in the development of some of the junior members of the organization, he was seen as rather uninvolved with others whom he had hired. He tended to expect some of the key players in the organization to come to him, and found it difficult to reach out and develop these relationships.

Executive coaching focused on what his colleagues needed from Jack and how he could best define his role. We were searching for what could energize Jack and how his knowledge, advice, and guidance could be made available to the firm. On paper, we developed a role description that would give both Jack and the organization what they needed. But a combination of a deteriorating economy and Jack’s relative inexperience in this area of investment prevented his project from getting off the ground. Jack was stuck and the coaching seemed stalled. He no longer seemed interested in building on past strengths and successes and couldn’t really focus on improving his interpersonal and communication skills. He had been unable to move forward into new areas of interest, and was increasingly preoccupied with the destructive aspects of Bill’s leadership.

It became apparent to both Jack and myself that the sense of stagnation he felt could be remedied only by exiting the organization. A sense of burden eventually lifted as Jack began to plan the next chapter of his life. He began to focus more on the impact he had had in his industry and how he could still draw on that with a sense of pride as a consultant. He would focus more on his board memberships and a few mentoring relationships. Most importantly, he would be able to devote himself more fully to some of the leisure pursuits that meant so much to him.

More articles in this series:
Executive Growth Along The Adult Development Curve

The Adult Development Framework
Case Study – The Executive in Midlife: Sr. V.P.

Executive Growth Along The Adult Development Curve was first published in Consulting Psychology Journal,57(2) 118-125, 2005